By Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia
The continuing problem for both the United States and the Confederate leaders were finding enough of all of everything to maintain their war efforts. Both sides labored diligently to try to find enough bodies to keep the ranks of their armies full.
The Confederacy’s Conscription Act
The Confederacy enjoyed an initial rush to the colors that saw about half a million men volunteer in the summer of 1861. Many, however, enlisted for just 12 months. By April 1862, the Confederate Congress was facing the prospect of having many thousands of men go out of service, and the Confederacy couldn’t afford that. They decided to deal with it by enacting a national Conscription Act.
In April 1862, this Conscription Act made all men—all white males 18 to 35—eligible for three years of service in the Confederate army. It also retained in service everybody who had volunteered for a shorter period early in the war. It seemed to be a betrayal to the men who had volunteered in good faith for a year, that their government had let them down.
Age Was Not the Limit
The law was later changed to extend the age limit from 18 to 45, in September of 1862, and in February of 1864, the Confederate law was changed to make the limit from 17 years old to 50 years old. Everybody in that huge swatch was available to be drafted.
The Confederacy, which trumpeted states’ rights, individual freedoms, and personal freedoms as it led up to the secession crisis and the establishment of the new republic, was now allowing its central government to step in and force, to compel, service by its male citizenry.
An Unpopular Act
Conscription became unpopular in the Confederacy, and many men evaded the draft. It also, however, worked to promote volunteering, which is one of the things its architects had hoped. Men would volunteer in order to avoid what early on was the stigma of being drafted.
Many of the women in the Confederacy, early on in the war, urged men to volunteer. Other women, especially Unionist wives and those not quite so enthusiastic about the Confederacy urged their men to avoid military service if at all possible. Overall, about 80,000 Southern men were conscripted, and another 80,000 enlisted to avoid being drafted.
The Confederacy mobilized 80 percent of its available white men military-aged manpower. It was made possible only by the fact that the institution of slavery and the labor involved in that institution kept the economy running, and freed up this enormous movement of white men from the civilian sector to the military sector.
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The US Enrollment Act
Most of the United States soldiers were volunteers, but the United States also had to resort to a draft well before the war was over. In March of 1863, the United States government decided that because many of its enlistments were about to run out, it would have to institute a draft, and the Enrollment Act of March 3, 1863 was passed.
The act said that all men aged 20 to 45 were eligible for service. One was allowed to buy a substitute to avoid service. If one were drafted, they could pay someone else to serve for them. The Confederacy had that as well, although they got rid of it in December of 1863. One could also, in the United States, pay what was called “commutation money”–a $300 fee that would get one out of individual draft calls.
An Unfair Act
Substitution and commutation sent a message to many poorer men in the United States that the draft wasn’t fair—that it was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. There was enormous opposition to the draft across the United States. There were major riots in New York City, just after the battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863, as the first draft call went into effect. Laborers, many of them Irish immigrants and Irish Americans, rampaged through the streets of New York City, shouting that they weren’t going to fight in a war to free black people.
What started out as an anti-draft riot in many ways turned into a race riot. The main targets of the rioters became black people. The rioters burned a black orphanage down. They kept the fire department and the police department from coming to the aid of many black victims. It was one of the ugliest scenes of the entire war, triggered by opposition to the draft, and then changing into something else all together.
Scores of people were killed in these New York City draft riots. The most careful study of the Midwest suggests that as many as 90,000 Midwesterners fled to Canada to avoid the draft. Thousands congregated in some of the more mountainous cowlings of Pennsylvania, Clearfield County, and others beyond the reach of draft agents.
In the end, the draft operated principally to encourage enlistment rather than to force men directly into the service.
The states used all kinds of incentives to get men to volunteer to meet the draft calls so no one would actually be drafted, including a system of bounties; these were not present in the Confederacy but were present in the United States, where men who enlisted would be paid sometimes a federal bounty, a state bounty, and even a local bounty if they would agree to enlist.
Overall, about 45,000 northern men have drafted directly into military service; another 120,000 purchased substitutes. The two numbers together made up just about six per cent of all those who served.
As in the South, the draft acted primarily as a stimulus to volunteering. Both the United States and the Confederate armies were made up of a good cross-section of their populations.
Common Questions about Conscription and Enrollment Acts
The Conscription Act made all men—all white males 18 to 35—eligible for three years of service in the Confederate army. It also retained in service everybody who had volunteered for a shorter period early in the war.
The US Enrollment Act was passed on March 3, 1863.
There was enormous opposition to the draft across the United States. There were major riots in New York City as the first draft call took effect. Several scores of people were killed in these New York City draft riots. Many northerners fled to Canada.